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NBA Playoffs: Defense Rules

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/18/2008

The Nuggets and Lakers are going to be interesting to watch this NBA postseason. Not because they’re playing each other in the first round, but because they are teams far better on offense than defense. That’s because you advance in the playoffs more often than not with defense.

Look what happened three years ago when the Denver Nuggets met the Spurs in the playoffs. The Nuggets had surged into the postseason, winning 25 of 29 games since the All-Star break. They were The Team Nobody Wanted To Face, and the series opener showed why: With the Spurs missing 17 consecutive shots in the fourth quarter, Denver stole the game and home-court advantage. The Spurs responded by winning the next four games to close out the series. "They beat us like a pup," said one player.

That’s because the Spurs have defense as their No. 1 goal each game. The defending champs get a fascinating matchup in the opening round against the run-and-gun Suns. Phoenix is uptempo, like the Lakers and Nuggets, but they added Shaq in a midseason trade precisely for a situation in the postseason like this, against a defensive-oriented team that tries to play a half court style. Phoenix is in a flexible position, able to go uptempo behind Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire, but now (in theory, anyway) able to win a half court game, if necessary.

It was interesting that the Suns and Spurs met once after the Shaq trade, April 9th in San Antonio. The Suns won the game, 96-79, shooting 51% and holding the Spurs to 42% shooting. Shaquille O'Neal had eight of his 16 points in the fourth quarter and grabbed nine rebounds for Phoenix. After that game O'Neal said, "I told them that if they play me single coverage, let me make them pay. I'm still the baddest 36-year-old ever created." He’s certainly the baddest from the free throw line.

It will be interesting to see how dominant defensive teams play against some of these talented run-and-gun offenses. Perhaps it should be phrased another way: It will be interesting to see how the explosive offensive teams handle the dominant defensive ones.

Keep in mind that while the Lakers are a dominant offensive team, they were surprisingly strong defensively during the regular season, allowing 44.5% shooting by opponents, sixth best in the NBA, just behind the Spurs. They also swept the Nuggets, 3-0 SU/ATS, with the under going 2-1. And in the Spurs/Suns regular season matchups, the under was a perfect 3-0. Unders can be more prevalent in the postseason with games meaning so much and improved defensive intensity.
Examining head to head matchups like that can be particularly illuminating during the playoffs. Examine how the teams fared against each other. Examine the individual box scores, team shooting percentages. Even read the account of each game, because you may find key players missing. The NBA playoffs offer outstanding contrast and styles, so be sure and examine the previous meetings to find clues that can help predict what is going to happen next.

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